The Tavern Maid
“I kept wondering exactly why you chose the busiest night of the week for this,” Jenkara said, his smile half illuminated by silvery moonlight. “And then I realized: you want me all to yourself.”
Balini leaned back against the wall of the tavern and smiled faintly. Her fingers tapped rhythmically against her palms as exhilarating anticipation thrummed through her veins. “You have no idea,” she hummed.
“And no one will miss us.”
“I know.” Jenkara moved closer, bracing one arm against the wall by Balini’s head. Her body went rigid, her fingers curling into claws, and Balini reminded herself that she didn’t have to be afraid. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”
Jenkara’s eyebrows raised slightly. “What took you so long?”
With their lips separated by a hairsbreadth, Balini wrapped a hand around the base of Jenkara’s neck, her fingers winding through his hair. “Do you want to know why I haven’t killed you yet?” she whispered.
Balini’s fingers encircled his throat. “Because I had to be sure I wasn’t taking an innocent life,” she snarled, turning and pinning Jenkara against the wall.
Bright, golden light burned deep in Balini’s eyes and glowing tendrils snaked their way down her arms, twining around her fingers before reaching for Jenkara’s throat. “I know what you did,” Balini hissed. “I know about each child you murdered and you’re never going to harm another!”
Jenkara kicked and clawed desperately at the magic engulfing his body, his mouth open in a silent scream that Balini had stolen with a wave of her hand. “No one will hear you, Jenkara. And no one will care that you’re dead because once they learn the truth, they’ll all know that this is what you deserve.”
A full sleeve of light had encapsulated Balini’s arm and she lifted him into the air, his life slowly draining into nothingness. “Meera. Chandrika. Vikranti. Debali. Let their names be the last you ever hear.”
Curling her fingers into a fist, Jenkara’s spine cracked and crumbled into dust. His body thudded to the ground, limp and twisted. The glow of Balini’s magic disappeared like a blown out flame. She swayed and fell forward against the tavern, her body angled awkwardly over Jenkara’s as she tried to regain her composure.
Drawing a deep, steady breath, Balini stepped back and ran her hands over her head to the base of her neck. She sighed and it was then that she felt the prickling sensation of someone watching her. She looked over her shoulder, studying the line of trees at the clearing’s edge and found nothing.
Once she had readjusted her sari and plait, Balini hurried back inside, entirely unaware of the woman watching her from the shade of the trees.
Balini’s gaze caught on the doorway of the tavern as two people stepped inside, the early morning light glowing around them. Mara - a tall, sinewy fairy with onyx eyes and a short mass of dark brown locks - was already known to Balini and her appearance sent Balini’s hands into an excited flutter. Mara’s companion, however, was unfamiliar to her. The stranger’s thick, auburn hair fell in curls to her waist where a patterned flax skirt was tied. Eyes reminiscent of the ocean were framed by long, dark eyelashes and an intricate tattoo decorated the woman’s strong chin and full lips.
As the pair wandered over to an isolated corner of the room, Balini turned her back to them to hide her smile. She pressed her hand to her mouth, momentarily entertaining her infatuation before reigning in her emotions. When she turned around, Mara waved and caught her eye with a dazzling smile. All of Balini’s practiced self-control seemed to fly out the window. She couldn’t help the smile that tugged at her lips or calm her joy at seeing Mara again, which she only knew how to express with happy, fluttering hands.
“Hello,” said Balini, rocking forward onto her toes.
Mara grinned and leaned back in her seat, her arm draped over the back of the chair and one leg folded atop the other. “Hello. It’s good to see you again, Balini.”
Balini beamed. “It’s good to see you, too,” she sighed, her gaze falling to the table the moment their eyes met. “Can I get you anything?”
“Arrack for us both, please.”
Balini smiled and nodded, finally able to meet the fairy’s eyes. “Yes, I’ll bring some out for you. One moment.”
Returning to the table hardly a minute later, Balini set out a plate of stacked rotis and two brimming cups. Balini smiled and considered the fact that Mara was one of a few customers for whom her smile was not an effort. “Is there anything else I can do for you?” she asked.
Mara nodded. “Are you very busy at the moment?”
Balini spared the other customers a glance, then shook her head. “No. Why?”
Mara took a languid drink and relaxed against her seat again. She swept the back of her hand across her mouth. “I wanted to speak to you privately.”
“Is something wrong?”
“No, but the matter I want to discuss with you is very... delicate.”
Curious, Balini agreed and gestured to a curtained doorway near the bar. “Myself and a few other workers share that room at night No one would bother us there.”
Mara finished her drink and stood, ruffling her hair with ringed, calloused fingers. “Do you mind if Kai joins us?” she asked, nodding in the stranger’s direction.
“No, of course not.” Balini smiled politely at Kai, her eyes lingering on the woman’s tattoo. “Follow me.”
The room beyond the curtain was plain and small and although Balini had never lived in luxury, she was suddenly struck by its simplicity. Balini eyed the threadbare sleeping mats and her cheeks flushed with embarrassment. “I’m sorry it’s not more accommodating.”
“It isn’t a problem,” Mara assured her. “In fact, accommodations are related to what I wanted to discuss with you. Sort of.” Balini nodded for her to continue. “Our captain is looking to replace a crew member we were forced to relieve recently and I had hoped that you would join us.”
Balini frowned, her brows furrowing. “I thought you were a sailor?”
“A pirate, but, yes.”
“I work in a tavern! Mara, I wouldn’t know the first thing about sailing or-”
“I could teach you. Besides, you already know how to fight and I’d say that’s one of the most important qualities of a good pirate.”
Balini felt as if she’d been hit in the stomach. She looked between Kai and Mara and found it impossible to understand their expressions. Balini’s fingers began to tremble as each one snapped quickly against her thumb, one after another in an agitated rhythm. “What do you mean?” she said.
Mara rested her hands on her waist and sighed. “I saw you last night.” At Balini’s surprised reaction, she risked a smile. “You weren’t exactly subtle, killing him under a full moon. Anyone could have seen you-”
“Yes, I’m aware,” Balini snapped. “You don’t need to remind me.” She took a deep breath and tapped her restless fingers against her collarbone. “If you’re here to bring me to the authorities, know that I’m not afraid to kill either of you.”
“What? No, Balini, you misunderstand. I wasn’t lying to you. I do want to recruit you. Seeing you last night only made me more eager to do so.”
“I don’t believe you.” She wanted to, but Balini had learned many years ago that most people couldn’t be trusted. Especially people with a beautiful smile and a handsome face.
“Our ship leaves within the hour. I want you to be with us when it does.”
Balini fixated on a freckle below Mara’s eye. “Were you spying on me?”
“No. I was going to ask you last night, but- well, you were otherwise engaged.”
Balini considered the other fairy’s explanation. She regarded Kai and the fraying seams of her dark red blouse. “Why is she here?” she asked warily.
Kai bristled but said nothing. “He is here because I thought that meeting another mage might make you feel more at ease.”
“You’re a mage?” Balini exclaimed. “What about you?”
Mara shook her head. “Unfortunately not. But there are dozens of other mages in our crew, including the captain. You wouldn’t have to keep your identity a secret from us. You’d be welcomed with open arms.”
“Why me?” Balini wondered, absently running her fingers along the folds of her sari.
Mara smiled and folded her arms over her stomach. “I like you. I always have. And, to be honest, last night wasn’t the first time I saw you use your magic. I promise, I wasn’t spying,” she added, noting Balini’s dubious expression. “I can explain myself later, but I need your answer. I understand if you’re unsure, but maybe consider speaking to the captain.”
“Nirvatha grew up in this city.” The name struck Balini like a blow to the head. She froze and stared in shock at Mara as the other fairy continued. “She’s about your age and, like I said before, she is a mage. Perhaps you’ll trust her more than you trust me right now. If you still aren’t interested, then nobody will stop you from leaving, but at least consider it.”
“Nirvatha? That’s your captain?” Mara nodded and Balini lurched forward, grabbing a knapsack from beside one of the mats and hastily throwing it over her shoulder. “Take me to her. Now, please.”
“Are you certain? A moment ago you looked ready to bolt-”
“Now,” Balini said again, already pushing the threadbare curtain aside.
As she started for the exit, a coworker behind the bar caught sight of Balini’s knapsack. “Bal, what are you doing?” he called, already hurrying across the room to intercept her.
Balini shifted restlessly from one foot to the other. “I have to go. I don’t know if I’m coming back, Manzur, but if I don’t, then this is goodbye.” She smiled and pulled him into a firm, brief hug. “Take care of yourself. And make sure to tell Shantha, on my behalf, to go fuck herself.”
“Shantha?” Mara echoed, trailing after Balini as she strode towards the doorway. “One of your exes?”